Growing up in Dubai, a prosperous, modern city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Laila Afridi developed a truly international perspective. The daughter of a Pakistani lawyer who was a founding partner in a UAE law firm, she crossed paths with people of many nationalities.
Ms. Afridi’s trips to Pakistan with her family made her aware of economic disparities and discrimination. She became particularly committed to social justice when she learned about Zahida Perveen, a Pakistani woman who had been slashed and blinded by her jealous husband. Ms. Perveen’s case was one of the few in Pakistan to be prosecuted and to result in a substantial conviction: The husband was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
“It made me realize how little I knew about Pakistan,” says Ms. Afridi, who was in college at the University of Warwick in the U.K. at the time. “On the one hand it’s nice to be sheltered growing up, but on the other I needed to know more about where I was from.”
Paradoxically, it was an internship in the United States that brought Ms. Afridi back to Pakistan. After graduating from college at 20, she won a UN internship at the Afghanistan desk in the Department of Political Affairs. Ms. Afridi’s supervisor relied heavily on her to help prepare a daily political report. One topic she researched was whether U.S. actions in Afghanistan were in compliance with international law.
Her work in New York also gave her the opportunity to meet other Pakistanis, one of whom put her in touch with Dr. Nasim Ashraf, a nephrologist who had helped Zahida Perveen obtain medical care. Ms. Afridi e-mailed Dr. Ashraf and received an unexpected but welcome invitation to Pakistan to join a task force that was forming a National Commission for Human Development – an anti-poverty initiative begun at the behest of President Pervez Musharraf.
Though the youngest member of the task force at 22, Ms. Afridi was assigned to help raise $10 million from the UN’s Development Program and help spread the word of the commission’s formation throughout the country’s 96 districts.
She was very gratified to see the commission’s first project come to fruition: ensuring the school enrollment of all children in one particular district. Although warned by friends about the poverty and hardship she would discover in Pakistan, Ms. Afridi’s experience left her hopeful about the country’s future.
Ms. Afridi has been exposed to legal systems in the Middle East, United Kingdom, and United States, but chose to attend an American law school to attain an education that would provide the most insight into international law. She chose Columbia, she says, “because I loved the atmosphere and because so many actors on the international landscape pass through.”